'The Life Before Her Eyes' director shrugs off criticism

by Roger Moore

The Orlando Sentinel (MCT)

8 May 2008


Filmmaker Vadim Perelman has endured critical slings and arrows in his work. He took some hits for his debut film, the somber, meditative and Oscar-nominated “House of Sand and Fog.” He’s taking even more for his latest, “The Life Before Her Eyes.”

And he’s cool with that.

“There’s no right time to get it,” he says of the movie.

So let Steven Rea, in The Philadelphia Inquirer, call the film, an adaptation of Laura Kasischke’s novel, “a ghost story that doesn’t quite make sense in the bright light of the day.”

Let Janice Page dismiss it in The Boston Globe by saying she had to see it twice, and “it didn’t help.” An Internet reviewer for Newsblaze went off on the film as “anti-abortion propaganda.”

Perelman can live with not everyone understanding or at least being in sync with his somewhat tricky “puzzle picture’s” mournful vibe. He is Russian, a native of Kiev. His next movie will be a long-planned adaptation of fellow Russian Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged.” She was tough enough to take the fierce criticism that sometimes greeted her work, he says. And so is he.

“The Life Before Her Eyes” is about a woman (Uma Thurman) remembering her rebellious teen years and a seminal event in that part of her life - a Columbine-like massacre at her high school. Or is it?

We reached Perelman, 44, in Los Angeles.

So your film joins the ranks of “Memento,” “The Usual Suspects,” as a puzzle picture. What’s the trickiest thing about telling a story that has clues and twists to it?
I never wanted this to be just a puzzle movie, “The Usual Suspects,” for instance. I didn’t want some explanation at the end where the camera, or your mind, races back over the other clues. I still think this can be ambiguous, even at the end.

But it is a clockwork kind of puzzle picture. In every scene, there’s clues from the past, or the future, that tell you what’s going on, where we’re going. Listen to the song on the car radio (in an early scene). Figure it out. To have that puzzle set up and try not to give everything away right at once is the real challenge. Some people solve the puzzle right off.

And like Kasischke’s novel, it uses one of the myths of the Columbine shooting, the legend about the girl who didn’t renounce her faith as a jumping off point.
Yes, that apparently didn’t actually happen, as it turns out. But it makes a fascinating starting point. I also didn’t want this to be a “Columbine” movie. This film is not “Elephant.” It’s not about what makes a high school shooter, or what are the victims like. It’s an event that triggers a more internal psychological story, almost a supernatural story, of this woman’s past and her future. This is a woman who sees her life and how it might be if she chooses otherwise.

The kind of films I like to make have no easy answers. “House of Sand and Fog” was heartbreaking. This one is more intellectually challenging than emotionally challenging. It has an emotional story to tell, but it has a puzzle built in that makes the viewing a more active experience than just sitting and watching and being fed easy characters, easy problems, easy answers. In “House of Sand and Fog,” I wanted to tell a story that didn’t decide for you who was bad, who was good. I tried to keep a balance of sympathy that allowed you to respect and condemn both the depressed woman who loses her house and the Iranian family that buy it.

In “The Life Before Her Eyes,” the big challenge was not letting the audience be intellectually frustrated.

Speaking of “frustrated,” you’re taking on an Ayn Rand novel, a movie that’s sure to be controversial, taken from a novel that many have wanted to film but nobody can crack, “Atlas Shrugged.” At least you have Angelina Jolie on board.
It’s been in the making for 50 years, and the length of the book has daunted people, I think, for every one of those 50 years. How can you get a manageable film out of a book that big? Adapting “Atlas Shrugged” is a huge responsibility because this book, this woman, are so fervently loved and followed by millions of people. It’s like taking on “Lord of the Rings” with maybe a different sort of devoted following.

Rand would be, I think, today a great libertarian icon. Perhaps that’s what Angelina Jolie is interested in making the movie. For me, Rand is this writer of big, broad themes and emotions. But so am I, thematically. People accuse her of being heavy-handed, and I hear the same thing said about me. It is the Russian way, I think, of doing things. That was my window into this, growing up under the same repressive regime.

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